In the year 2015, what does genre mean? Think about the most popular and critically acclaimed bands in the country. What do most of them have in common? Their music defies easy categorization. Rock and folk have been fused. Hip-hop and pop are now inseparable. The dance-hall is taking over Top 40. And one of the artists that has been leading the charge of this destruction of "genre" in American music is Aaron Bruno, better known by his stage name AWOLNATION.
In the latest episode of the Rock Geek, we sit down with AWOLNATION in the green room at Irving Plaza on the first night of two back-to-back sold-out dates at the storied NYC rock club. And AWOLNATION walks us through everything from opening for the Rolling Stones, what it means to perform in a band vs. being a solo artist, what genre means to him, and what's gone into his lengthy career as a musician.
It's a riveting conversation and Aaron holds little back as we dive into his career and his music. And although no single person can help point to the future of what the music industry is going to sound like, the adventurous and experimental spirit of AWOLNATION should be a great clue.
Bruno, the man better known as AWOLNATION. I'm here to chat with him in the green room before the first of his back-to-back, sold out shows at Irving Plaza. I have become quite intrigued by their eclectic blend of pop, punk, metal, hardcore, hip hop, and almost any other genre you can name. I have some questions about being a one-man band, as well as finding an audience in a post-genre music world. And something tells me AWOLNATION can help me find some answers. - When I saw AWOLNATION open for the Rolling Stones I was fascinated. I decided on the spot that I wanted to find out what goes into making such familiar sounding, yet genre bending music. And what is behind the decision for one man to be a band instead of a solo artist. I'm hoping that a man who can simultaneously channel Madonna and Sepultura can also help me imagine a world where genre dividers in record racks and bottomless genre menus on Spotify and Apple Music will all become just another page in music history. And so I had to know, do you have to lose yourself to become a band? And in doing so, is there any way to lose the constraints of genre? - Aaron Bruno and I were to meet after sound check on the first day of his sold out two night stand here at Irving Plaza in Greenwich Village. I arrive in time to catch the tail end of preparations before meeting Aaron in the green room. I actually got to see you play last weekend in Pittsburgh, when you opened for the Rolling Stones. forget. It wasn't really about the experience of actually playing the songs as much as it was the overall deal and seeing how they operate and meeting them. And I could have died the day after and known that the Rolling Stones personally chose us to share the stage with them. So it was a great thing. And the night before that we played the Firefly Music Festival with Paul McCartney. And then a week before that we played Bonnaroo with Robert Plant, so I got the hat trick of, kind of Zeppelin, the Beatles, and the Stones. And I've to say, I've always been a fan of all three that I mentioned, but I had never seen the Stones live and in the flesh, you know. And to see the way they performed and how many people were just liberated from the first note they hit was just such a beautiful reminder of how important and significant music really is. - Aaron's thoughts about why artists make music give me pause, and I'll be reflecting on them for some time to come. But seeing him perform during sound check reminds me of what brought me here in the first place. Some artists seem to be able to switch hats from song to song, but Aaron seems to be able to change personalities between verse and chorus. And that gives me an inkling of why he is AWOLNATION and not just Aaron Bruno. Since AWOLNATION's formation there have only been, really, sort of two constants to the band: yourself and your keyboardist, Kenny Carkeet. And I kind of think it's safe to say that AWOLNATION is Aaron Bruno in the same sense that the Smashing Pumpkins is Billy Corgan or Nine Inch Nails is Trent Reznor. When/why did you make the decision to have a band instead of, perhaps, a solo project? - I've never been a huge fan of solo artists. I'm not going to wear a Paul McCartney t-shirt or a John Lennon shirt, as tempting as it can be. I'm going to wear a Beatles shirt. I just want to create something that sounded ambitious in a world, a musical world, that people could escape to without having to explain why or what kind of music they're into or not. I didn't think anyone would want to buy and Aaron Bruno record. That sounds silly to me, you know? And it was also a way for me to remain slightly faceless to this whole thing, even though it is my face. And trust me, when we pull up to a venue and I see the poster with me on it, it never feels good, you know? I'm always like, "Fuck my... Fuck my face, " you know? I couldn't do it alone and so many of the parts that I put on the record are influenced from the band members and knowing how well they'll play it live and how heavy it will become. Because when I go to see a live show, I want it to be better and heavier and more intense and more raw than the album version. I'm not going to see the same album. If you want to do that you can go see pretty much any band right now. They're just playing their tracks from their record. So you look at the stage and you see vocals going on, you see guitars being played that no one's playing or singing. And so that's not what you're going to get with us. But most bands, in fact, most every band is doing that now. I think it's just a matter of time before people realize that, you know? - Maybe, like Bruce Wayne becoming Batman, Aaron needs AWOLNATION to become something greater then himself. But he's found an equal in the studio to help him realize his dynamic vision and to overcome the pressure of the sophomore slump. So after the success of Megalithic Symphony, particularly some of the singles, like Sail, expectations were massive for Run, which came out in March. What's it been like since the album's release and dealing with that, you know, as expectations to deliver on your sophomore efforts? - Terrifying, because I was holding on to these secrets forever that I was so excited for people to hear. But once it's out, that's it and it's for everybody else to judge or enjoy or hate on or whatever it was going to end up being. So it was terrifying but also liberating at the same time. - During those initial sessions at the Red Bull Studio, when AWOLNATION was first becoming a thing, what was the creative process like when you were trying to decide what direction to take AWOLNATION as a band? - Well, I already... I never made a decision. It just took the direction that it was going to take. I had no control of it. It was just song ideas that I had and I did my best to service them in this nice studio they provided me with. And it just so happens that the engineer that worked at that studio was the same engineer that did my hardcore band Insurgence's first, and probably my first, actual full album. So I hadn't talked to him in over 10 years. And so I went into the studio and there he was. His name is Eric Stenman and he was the engineer on a lot of the first record and then all of Run, the new record. When I was making the record it was just me and him in this room for months and months and months. And you really get to know someone. To answer your question, there was no direction I had. I was just going to make the music sound as powerful and as good as I could. - I need to know the answer to the question that brought me here. Is there a future where music can be distributed without the confines of genre? And will that future be delivered by eclectics like AWOLNATION, who are producing music that cannot be shackled to a label? It's 2015 and it seems to me that this notion of genre has mattered less than it ever has in the past. Hip hop is being influenced by Indie rock. Indie rock is being influenced by electronic music. Electronic music is being influenced by Pop. But at the same time, even with artists who are dipping their toes in lots of different pools at once, it seems like they all need to understand the building blocks. - I've studied the right stuff and listened to the right music since I was a kid. And it's been really important to me to discover the true greats and what has led us to where we're at now. Where I think, as you mentioned, a lot of bands who try to combine, there's probably an A&R guy sitting in a room saying, "All right, we're going to combine a little bit of EDM with a little bit of stadium rock and a little bit of this and that, and then we're going to sell a million records. " And I could just picture the scene. That's not the case for me. I never woke up and thought, "I'm going to write an up tempo song, " or a song that sounds this way or that way. It's just music that is really recycled information that I have, you know? - We talked about this a little bit. You were in two other bands, Hometown Hero and Under the Influence of Giants. And both of those bands had a very different sort of sound than AWOLNATION has. Under the Influence of Giants having that dance punk, alternative dance feel while Hometown Hero was rooted more in the traditions of post-grunge. And now there's AWOLNATION with its mixture of electronic music, pop, and even elements of hardcore. I have this assumption that, when you were younger at least, you had this voracious, eclectic consumption of music. - Nice word. It all seems so...too far-fetched to be actually a part of it or contribute to music in any way. I was just such a fan of music. And at an early age, I remember being curious about chord progressions and how minor chords can play with major chords and why I feel sad when there's a bridge of a Michael Jackson song that goes into this darker place or whatever. I remember discussing these aspects of song with my mom. And she remembers it too, so I guess at an early age I just was obsessed with trying to understand the feeling I felt. Because it was a different feeling than anything else gave me. I, like many suburban kids, was pretty deep into sports, organized team sports. Music felt like a rebellion towards organized team activities. So it was good for me to step out. And coming home from school or team practices, just listening to either rap music, which was not popular or not on radio yet, or metal that my brother turned me on to. But I feel that I was lucky enough to be a kid in the last golden era of pop music. - What was the one record that you think shaped you the most as an artist? - I can't answer that. I wouldn't know. Thriller was huge, obviously, but every Nirvana record shaped me. Radiohead OK Computer was huge. The first Rage record was enormous for me. Sepultura Roots was huge. Straight Outta Compton was big for me. Public Enemy Takes a Nation... - Genre labels are simultaneously multiplying while becoming more meaningless. And AWOLNATION have crossed more genre lines than any band I have seen recently to much success and critical acclaim. In doing so, they are clearing a path for more eclecticism and exciting innovations in sound. I was hoping that my thirst for answers would be sated by this meeting, but I fear that I have discovered only more questions about the direction in which music is heading, questions that I must ask. And that's what makes me The Rock Geek.
AWOLNATION is an American electronic rock band, formed and fronted by Aaron Bruno, formerly of Under the Influence of Giants, Hometown Hero and Insurgence. The band is signed to Red Bull Records, and their first EP, Back from Earth, was released on iTunes on May 18, 2010